Photo by Joel Maisonet
There are many plays that deal with the discarded children of soldiers who are abroad fighting wars. One of the most famous is Miss Saigon, a huge musical that tells the story, echoing Madame Butterfly, of a soldier who briefly falls in love with a local girl, gets her pregnant but doesn’t know it, and then is torn away from her by the vicissitudes of war. But there are also numerous smaller plays dealing with similar tales. Jackalope Theatre is currently producing one of the most unusual of them, a long one-act by South Korean playwright Hansul Jung that features three different time periods that intertwine throughout the show in sometimes surreal ways that ultimately come together to tell the tale of an American soldier in WWII, his adult daughter in 1975, the young “comfort girl” he meets in the war, and, um, Jesus. Yes, that Jesus, who is the fourth character in this play, which is far funnier than its title, Among the Dead, would lead you to expect.
At the start of the play, directed deftly and creatively by Kaiser Ahmed, we get a quick glimpse of Luke (Sam Boeck), an army private during WWII, as he leaves his baby’s mother (played by Jin Park and known as Number Four) behind in Burma, promising to come back for her in a year. We also meet Anastasia “Ana” Woods (Malia Hu) as she checks into a Seoul hotel during student riots in the city, though she seems to be a bit confused about what she is doing there. We quickly learn that she is picking up the ashes of her father, who has hardly been around for most of her life and has recently died in another war, with the idea that it might help her to understand him.
While she tries to puzzle it all out, a bellboy comes to the door who knows all about her and her mission…which is weird because no one else knows. He turns out to be Jesus (Colin Huerta)—sort of the Intervener in Chief in this play—who is there to give her two things: her father’s journal from the 40s and some very powerful “Mt. Fuji” pot to help her deal with everything. That pot will be significant because, when things begin getting bizarre—OK, Jesus delivering stuff to a hotel room isn’t exactly normal—it’s just plausible that it all could be an effect of the drug. But it’s the journal that is far more important. Reading it, she will find out more than she’s ever known about her father.
As she starts to read it, we watch a harrowing scene in which young Private Luke, flanked by Jesus, comes across six men molesting a young girl. Jesus keeps telling him to do something about it—he has a gun and they don’t even know he is there—but he freezes, ultimately watching as they rape and then kill her.
It’s at this point that the potent pot kicks in, or else the supernatural stuff gets even more unreal. Young Private Luke seemingly crosses through time and into Ana’s hotel room where, with the help of Jesus, she discovers that he sees her as a Korean girl in a Japanese uniform: Number Four, who had stolen the uniform from the camp where she had been held as a “comfort girl”—euphemism obvious—for the soldiers there.
I hope you’re not confused yet. This is the clear, easy part. 🙂
Seriously, both playwright Jung and director Ahmed take all kinds of steps to keep characters and time periods as straight as they can get when “Ana” exists simultaneously in two different threads, portraying “Number Four” in one of them even as she plays herself in another one. It makes much more sense as you watch it. And Huerta, Park, and Hu have so much fun with their roles and the crazy things that happen to them that you are having too much fun to think about whether you’re confused. (Boeck, by the way, is also outstanding, but his character is too serious almost all of the time to create much humor.)
For most of this play, scenes in the foreground and the background (outside the hotel’s window) often play out simultaneously and even comment on each other as they happen. This is especially true of the longest, most central scene, in which Jesus and Number Four are blown off a bridge by explosives and “fall” as we also watch a flashback of Ana’s Number Four and Luke getting to know each other. It’s a carefully conceived, powerful overlap, and Ahmed handles it brilliantly, aided by Lighting Designer Samuel Stephen, who keeps the two locations separate.
Also brilliant is the tech here. Scenic, Props, and Furniture Designer Paloma L.’s work is wonderful. The hotel room is very well-appointed and realistic, and the huge window is extremely flexible. (L. might have done more with the exterior “jungle” sets: the backdrops made from camouflage nets are an interesting idea, but they don’t occupy the same theatrical universe as the lovely main set, which holds a few surprises.) Sound Designer Michael Huey has created some of the most realistic—and frightening—gunfire I’ve ever heard in a theatre. (Take the cautions seriously.) And there is one sudden special effect in which a prop is blown apart before our eyes by a “bullet.” It’s hugely effective.
Among the Dead will challenge you, no doubt, and shock you at times, but it will also entertain you…at least once you navigate your way through the Broadway Armory to find the theatre. (Damn, that is one massive building!) Tickets are available from Jackalope Theatre; it is performed at the armory (5917 N. Broadway) and playing through Dec 11. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.